Steve Ballmer: CeBIT 2008

Remarks by Steve Ballmer, Microsoft Chief Executive Office
CeBIT 2008
Hannover, Germany
March 3, 2008

STEVE BALLMER: Well, thank you all very much for the warm welcome. Chancellor Merkel, President Sarkozy, President Barroso, Prime Minister Wulf, Professor Scheer, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, it is truly for me an honor to be invited to speak here at CeBIT. CeBIT is today the most important technology event in the world. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world, including some exotic places, do, in fact, converge here in Hannover to really learn about the future of technology and the new opportunities that it will create.

The last time I spoke here was in 2002. In that speech I mentioned that I’d been at Microsoft 22 years and I had lived through three computing revolutions. I’m pleased to report I, by my math, have now been at Microsoft 28 years, and I’ve lived through four computing revolutions.

That’s four revolutions — (Applause.). That’s four revolutions in 28 years; just about one every seven years or so.

Frankly, I want to talk a little bit tonight about the fifth revolution. But first a little context.

The first revolution was really where the personal computer became an affordable, mainstream product. That revolution really put computing power in the hands of individuals for the first time.

The second revolution saw the emergence of the graphical user interface that we all recognize on computers today, and that really made it much easier for mainstream people to take advantage of the power of computing.

Revolution number three saw the rise of the Internet. During this revolution, e-mail became an everyday communications tool, and information became dramatically easier to find and share from anywhere in the world. We also gave computers the ability to talk to each other directly, which allowed us to start the process of automating many business and governmental processes, which in itself is a revolution.

The fourth revolution was really just starting in 2002. I think most of us now in the industry refer to it as the “Web 2.0 revolution”; that’s common name. During this revolution, the Web, the Internet has evolved from a set of static pages and information, to really a platform for services, for publishing, for gaming, for sharing information, and much, much more.

If this seven-year pattern, if you will, holds true, we really are almost at the end of the fourth revolution and the beginning of a fifth revolution. And if you really look at what’s going on in the information technology industry today and in the marketplace, that’ is exactly what we see happening.

Today, I’d like to share some of my thoughts and observations about this fifth computing revolution: the trends technologically that are shaping it, and some of the impacts that we think it will have on our lives and our businesses.

Let me begin by describing the trends that will make the new revolution possible. The first is really the hardware advances that are putting much more of everything in our hands: more computer processing power, and more computer processing in smaller and smaller devices that not only fit in a package this size, but very small and much bigger.

The second trend is the expansion in the amount of storage or information that PCs and other computing devices can store, including the very massive datacenters around the world, which literally will store in the next revolution almost all of the world’s current and past information.

A third key trend is the availability of wireless broadband networks everywhere, because that really will allow us all to tap into all of this information and all of this processing power wherever we go in the world.

There are two other trends that I think will also shape and guide this fifth revolution. One is what we at Microsoft like to refer to as natural user interfaces. The computer is still unnatural. You have to learn menus and mouse and keyboard, and we have applications even today that we’re pioneering for the next generation that can identify spoken and written words, and with very great accuracy start to interpret what you actually intended through the words that you’ve spoken.

Over time, interacting with computers will be more and more just like interacting with people. We may still use keyboards and mice when it’s more efficient, but at other times, you’ll simply tell your computer what you want it to do, or you’ll simply use a wave of your hand to instruct the computer on what is your intention.

Natural user interface has been an important focus for Microsoft and for our industry for a long time — a really long time. But I predict in this next revolution we’ll finally see the emergence of these technologies.

The last key trend is actually in display technology. The screens and the projection devices that we use every day are getting cheaper and lighter. It’s actually very important. We still today, many of us, including me, carry paper. This will be obsolete. If it’s not the fifth revolution, it will be the sixth revolution. These will be intelligent screens that really fit in our pocket that we can fold and manipulate, write on, with all the convenience we think about in a piece of paper today, but with all of the advantages of interactivity.

We’re also seeing high-definition screens move everywhere. So, instead of devices being built – tied – to screens, we’ll simply link our devices to a nearby display and project whatever information we want onto the surface that’s handy. I’ll come with my little screen, and I’ll project directly onto the big high-definition monitor, and it will all be trivial.

These are the raw ingredients of this fifth revolution: expanded processing power, huge storage, ubiquitous broadband networks, natural user interface and intelligent screens everywhere. And those five ingredients will really change almost everything that we in the IT industry, at least, do.

So, what does this world look like in 2015? I think the best way to understand the changes is to think of them in three areas: personal empowerment, social interaction and global issues.

I want to start with personal empowerment.

Today, we use computing in more and more places all the time; in the home, in the office, of course, but also increasingly in cars, stores, restaurants, and public spaces. Now you can get directions and road conditions while you’re driving, you can figure out which nearby restaurant has the best menu for your appetite or for your budget, or you can find a spot to simply sit down and catch up on e-mail. My wife advises me I shouldn’t be driving while I catch up on my e-mail.

But all of this is still a little too complicated, a little too disconnected. Think about how hard it is to synchronize all of the devices and information: your calendar, your contacts, your music, your documents, the reports that you want to read from people at work; and you want to connect those to your work and home computers, maybe you have a summer house, you want to connect that computer, your mobile phone, your portable media device. It’s all possible, but it involves a high degree of difficulty, even for the most advanced users.

All of this will change in this fifth revolution. You’ll be able to call up any document, photo, media file you’ve created or saved instantly on whatever device you have at hand. You won’t really need to know where you stored the information, and it won’t matter what device you’re using. You’ll just log on, click, and instantly get access.

This is going to be true for all forms of entertainment and information. In fact, during this next revolution, virtually all data, all content, all media and all books will be digitized: historical documents, government records, movies, TV shows, magazines, newspapers, everything, all instantly accessible and tailored to whatever screen and device you happen to have.

Software and services will be instantly available, too. Your calendar, your e-mail, your applications that you need for work, any games, entertainment you use, will all be there. If you need a new capability, you’ll just click, download, and access it instantly.

The same thing will be true for communication. With a single click, you’ll be able to reach people instantly, no matter where you are. Of course, you’ll also have control over who can reach you, and how. Sometimes I’m willing to be interrupted by my secretary or my wife, but less so by, I don’t know, some other people, shall we say, and we want to really make it easy to have control, not just empowerment to contact – but control over how that happens.

Communication will also move to be seamless between voice, text and video from device to device. Imagine at work a scenario where you start an e-mail exchange with a colleague, then you want to switch to voice on your mobile phone as you walk to a meeting, and you don’t want to lose any of the context. When you arrive, you want that conversation to merge automatically into a videoconference that’s already underway. This will be possible in the next generation.

At home, you might start up a phone call with a friend, transfer that conversation perhaps to a video gaming enjoyment that you’re having, and then start a racing game. You may want to contact other friends on their phones through instant messaging, on their game consoles or on their phones. With screens and technology everywhere and ubiquitously connected, everybody can join in no matter what.

To help tie all of this together, we’ll move to a world where we all have a single “digital identity” for all our communications. Today, just think about how many things you have to know to contact somebody. We have a phone number for work, for home, a mobile phone number, e-mail addresses, instant messaging identities. Tomorrow, all you’ll need is a name and software will automatically know how to reach you, the best way to reach you, and the context of what’s happening.

As these devices become more powerful and more connected and easier to use, also the devices will be smarter and more helpful. When I was getting ready for this trip to Hannover – don’t tell anybody – but my computer wasn’t really very helpful. I actually went to my executive assistant, and I asked her to arrange my travel, organize my documents, update me on who I was meeting with, go pull the latest statistics on the economy in Europe and France and Germany, the great success of EADS on the recent tanker win, very prominent in my hometown in the United States — (laughter) — but all of this information had to be collected, and a human being got involved.

I wish I could have simply turned to my computer and said, “I’m going to Hanover next Monday, and I’m returning on Wednesday. Prepare me for the trip.” And it should have made all the appropriate reservations, hotel, airplane, pulled — it knows who I’m meeting. It could have pulled the information, brought it together. But we don’t have that much intelligence yet in these devices.

During the fifth revolution, software will learn your habits, understand your preferences, predict your needs. It’ll know what time of day you prefer to fly and what hotels you usually stay in. It’ll know who you’re going to meet and what topics you are proposing to discuss.

When you sit down at your computer to start the day, what you need should be waiting for you. Your computer will know what kind of entertainment you enjoy, and it will scan the Internet for movies, music, music, books, lectures that you should be interested in. Your computer knows much of this already, based upon what you search for and look for. During the fifth revolution, we’re going to teach the computer how to understand you, not just you how to understand the computer.

Beyond personal empowerment, the next seven years will also bring profound change in how the way we interact socially.

This process is already underway. Everyone is familiar with social Web sites like MySpace and Facebook, but I recently saw a survey that really brought home how young people have really embraced online social networking. According to the major world authority on young people, MTV, people in their late teens and early 20s, have an average of 53 friends. Twenty of those friends are people they’ve never actually met in person. That means 40 percent of their friendships are with people they only know through e-mail, instant messaging, and social Web sites. It seems unbelievable to me, but I guess I’m no longer a young person.

Clearly, though, digital technology is becoming an important part of how we connect with people. It’s easy to find a group online that shares specific interests that you have. And as bandwidth expands and processing power increases, interacting with people will be more and more like talking with them in person.

That will be important at work, as virtual meetings become more like meeting people face to face. The truth is right now, I would say most people hate videoconferencing. It’s hard to set up. It’s unnatural, it’s stilted. But new ways of facilitating interaction between people in different locations are emerging. And amazing innovation like 3-D holographs will really make it feel like someone on the other side of the globe is in the really same room with you. The technologies exist, but they need to be made available for the mass market, and that will happen in this fifth generation.

Preserving and sharing memories of our experiences is another aspect of social interaction that will be transformed. As storage and bandwidth expands, we’ll preserve more of our day-to-day experiences in digital forms. We literally have a scientist who walks around with a camera on his neck, recording every minute of his day. It’s not my idea of fun, but it reminds us that anything you want from your entire life experience you’re going to be able to record, file, and access, from images of your child’s birthday party to the complete video and audio record, plus slides, of a business meeting you had the prior day, or years ago.

The revolution in social interaction is about more than staying in touch with friends, or sharing your excitement for your favorite sports teams with other fans. Online community is transforming the way we shape the societies we live in.

As parents, the trends driving the fifth revolution will enable us to form tight communities with teachers, administrators, other parents and also with our children, so we can really work together to provide our children with great educations. As citizens, it’ll give us new ways to share ideas and participate in the political process. We’re already seeing this I would say today, for example, in the U.S. presidential campaign, where online communities are really an essential part of how people support their candidates, push their agendas, raise money, et cetera.

And as businesspeople, these trends — processing power, storage, et cetera — will provide new opportunities to learn about our customers and match our products and messages to our customers’ needs and desires.

But the fifth revolution is about more than personal empowerment and social interaction; we literally will get the tools to help us better understand and address global issues that affect billions of people, including education, healthcare, science, and environmental change.

In education, the combination of these technology trends will play a vital role. Today, nearly 400 million children can’t attend school. Hundreds of millions who do aren’t getting an education that really prepares them for adulthood. Addressing that shortfall is critical. But there are huge challenges: overcrowded schools, outdated teaching methods, and a global shortage of qualified teachers.

At the heart of these issues is the problem of scale. Today, there are classrooms around the world where brilliant teachers deliver great lectures, and yet the challenge is to extend that kind of quality education from a handful of students in a single classroom to hundreds of millions of students around the globe.

Technology can help us tackle the challenge of scale. The technologies that we’re talking about let us put high-quality educational resources really in the hands of any teacher or student who has basic access to digital technology.

This is already starting to happen. One example, the MIT Courseware Initiative, it provides free access to material used in more than 1,800 MIT classes.

My colleague, Bill Gates, who will soon depart his full-time employment at Microsoft, has been busy studying the technologies of batteries in an MIT online course. He thinks it’s key to some of the projects that his foundation is involved with in rural areas. And there he is at night studying away in an MIT Courseware Initiative on the new technologies shaping the way energy is stored and accessed.

So, any student with access to the Internet, from Bill Gates on to a student in the poorest parts of the world, can access and study the same material as students at the most elite universities of the world. That’s just a hint of how technology will really be able to help get a great education for millions more young people around the world.

These same technology trends and the same revolution should also help us address issues in healthcare. In countries where access to doctors is limited, a physician’s assistant will really be able to use a mobile phone linked to a cheap display to consult doctors in hospitals hundreds or thousands of miles away. Using video and voice, and transmitting information about things like blood pressure and temperature, they’ll be able to provide a clear picture of a patient’s condition and history and get world-class treatment information.

In addition, technology will improve things like electronic healthcare records, which we all recognize and know are still primitive compared to the flow of information and the availability of information in almost any other field. Better access to healthcare information will enable patients and doctors to focus more on treatment and prevention, instead of information access.

Finally, the combination of these technology trends will help us tackle climate change, which is really the theme of this CeBIT. There’s no question that we all need to work together to reduce greenhouse gases and use natural resources more efficiently. Software can play a vital role in innovations that help us achieve new levels of energy efficiency in every aspect of our lives.

Software will make our homes and buildings more intelligent, so we use only the energy we need for lighting, heating and cooling. It’ll enable businesses to redesign products and processes to use less energy and fewer natural resources.

Addressing global warming is a responsibility we take seriously at Microsoft. We don’t make much physically, but with over one billion customers around the globe and 80,000 employees, we know we have a major role to play in driving environmental sustainability.

Today, for example, we operate a commuter bus system at our own Redmond headquarters, which reduces the annual amount of consumption that our people drive by more than 40,000 kilometers a year. At our campus in California and Thames Valley Park office in the UK, we use 100 percent renewable energy sources. And our largest datacenter is driven entirely off of hydroelectric power.

But the issue of sustainability really cuts across the industry and requires coordinated efforts by the public sector and the private sector. We’re working with a range of companies and organizations in efforts like the Climate Savers Computing Initiative and Green Grid to improve the energy efficiency of computers and minimize the environmental footprint of the computing industry.

We’re also doing a lot of pioneering work to try to drive down the power consumption in datacenters. Datacenter usage will explode in the next generation; its greenhouse gas effects cannot. And our goal is to reduce our own footprint, and then share and document with customers and partners how to run datacenters more efficiently.

In addition, we’re adding features to support energy conservation to many of our own products, and we’re partnering with customers around the world on innovative solutions to drive efficiency.

Conservation itself is not going to be enough to address global climate change. Today, there’s only a fraction of the world’s population that consumes the majority of its energy, and as billions more people need energy, we have to look to science — science for the solution of these issues. And I think computing technologies in this firth revolution will revolutionize the way science gets done.

Chemical science, environmental science, biological science will all be radically affected by the technologies that we talked about, technologies that will enable scientists to find answers to the question of alternative energy and many, many others as we move forward.

So, Microsoft is trying to partner closely with scientific and research organizations to ensure that our products really meet the needs of scientists in this fifth revolution.

I hope I’ve given you something of a perspective of some of the impact we see of the fifth revolution, and some of the excitement frankly that I feel. Twenty-eight years I’ve been in the computer industry, and we’ve lived through these four revolutions. And as important as they’ve been, I think the firth revolution, when we look back say 10 years form now, we’ll say this fifth revolution was even more important.

The fifth revolution will bring new technological opportunities to all of the IT companies in the room, and new ways in which we can add value to the consumer, to business, to government, and to society.

I for one am excited about this fifth revolution. I’m excited about what the future may bring. I’ve told people in Microsoft and in our industry I’ve got about nine more good years in this business, and I’m looking forward to contributing to at least another revolution and a half, so that whether we’re in places like Hannover or Seattle or in the most rural and remote parts of Africa, we can all stand together and say technology really made an important difference in people’s lives.

I thank you all very much for the opportunity. I want to thank BitCom and the CeBIT again for this change. Enjoy the show. Thanks again to our dignitaries for attending. It’s been my pleasure. (Applause.)

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